Sitting in with Jebry: SW Florida jams have kept jazz joints jumping for more than 20 years

Performances

The Island Pub

600 Neapolitan Way

262-2500

Mondays, 5–8 p.m.

Capri/A Taste of Italy

11140 Tamiani Trail N.

594-3500

Thursdays, 6-9 p.m.

Norm’s

5047 Tamiani Trail E.

793-6720

Sundays, 5-8 p.m.

The concept of the jazz jam session, where players come together to blow for their own enjoyment, is as old as jazz itself.

There have been some notable ones in history, such as the night when players from the Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands jammed on stage during Goodman’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert of 1938. But like many traditions, the jam session today pretty much exists in the memories of those who might have been to one at a concert hall, or in a smoky after-hours club where local horn players gathered to play “hot music” after their day jobs.

In Naples, the jam session is alive and well. It’s as real as it was 60 years ago when Benny, Gene Krupa, Basie and the rest of the “cats” blew on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Three nights a week, jazz singer Jebry leads one of the most popular and swinging musical get-togethers to be heard anywhere.

And she’s been doing it in Southwest Florida for more than 20 years.

Jebry’s Jam Session

Jebry — short for Judy Branch, is a native Californian who had a good deal of success internationally as a jazz singer. She spent two years with the Harry James big band, recorded with world class west-coasters like Lou Levy and hung out with one Francis Albert Sinatra. Jebry is a talented and versatile artist — not only in the jazz field, but in country music as well — who recalls the best of the jazz singers in history. Just as rare is that an artist of this stature generously shares the stage, for three hours per night, with dozens of other singers and instrumentalists.

It started in October of 1986. “I had been working some jazz clubs in Los Angeles when I got a call from a friend who lived in Naples,” Jebry recalls. “I wanted to get away for a couple of weeks and he suggested that I take a vacation. He mentioned that they were looking for a singer at the Old Marco Lodge. I didn’t even know where Marco Island was.

“I flew in, went to the Old Marco, and I met pianist Bobby Gideons and the Paradise Jazz Band. I couldn’t believe how good they were. After working there two weeks, Gideons asked me to stay the season, which led to my moving here. One of the things that astounded me was the Sunday jam session. The jam began at 3 in the afternoon, but an hour beforehand, people would be lined up out the door, waiting to get in. That’s how jammed it was.

“People came from all over Florida to attend Bobby’s Sunday jam session. That opened the door for vacationing jazz musicians to sit in with this incredible, six-piece band. Pianist Marian McPartland, host of NPR’s ‘Piano Jazz,’ came in. Buddy Rich trumpeter Don Goldie came in. There were a lot of great Naples players there as well, and they were all fabulous musicians.

“In time, I left that particular group and decided to try my own jam session.”

Jebry’s Jazz Jam, which has visited various locales through the past 20 years, continues to be a happening.

It’s important to note that the jams aren’t “cutting contests” or competitions, and they are not karaoke nights. Those who perform are well-schooled in the jazz language, protocol and tradition. Jebry holds it all together and makes it work.

“My goal is to make people happy,” she explains, “but the thing that makes this successful is to be able to honestly and givingly hand the microphone to someone else and let them show their wares. There’s a lot of talent here, and around the world. We have players coming in from Germany, Italy, and all over Europe.

“And I love it, too, as I get the chance to sing with some fantastic players.”

THE RHYTHM SECTION

On any given evening, Jebry might play host to world-class drummers, singers, alto and tenor saxophonists, trumpeters, guitarists, pianists, banjo and harmonica players and, occasionally, violinists and accordion players. As good as they all may be, any jazz session is only as good as those who accompany the guests. Jebry, through the years, has always had the best rhythm sections.

Anchoring the section is drummer Bobby Phillips, a Detroit native who is fluent in every style of playing, but never loses sight of the fact that the drummer is, for the most part, an accompanist and not a soloist. It’s not for nothing that he’s such a tasty expert at backing singers. He’s Jebry’s husband.

Pianist Jean Packard has long been a favorite of jazz musicians across the country, including Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Warren Vache and Maxine Sullivan. She backed them all, and many more, during her seven-year tenure as pianist for the Newport Jazz Society. Packard was the on-stage pianist, backing Joel Grey and Lottie Lenya, in the original Broadway production of “Cabaret.”

Bassist Frank Begonia is so incredibly in-demand, that, when asked about his availability for the month of December, he found he had only two nights open. This is a testament to his talent as a bass giant who once played for Sinatra, and, like his cohorts in the rhythm section, knows just about every standard tune ever written, and can play them in any key.

THE SITTERS-IN

It would be impossible to detail everyone who has participated in Jebry’s sessions. Here’s a sampling of several regulars and their singular backgrounds.

-- Wolfgang Scheelen, an art dealer from Dusseldorf, Germany, is as imposing musically as he is physically. He visits Naples about three times a year, and audiences here just adore his bluesy harmonica. It’s hard to believe that someone from Germany could have such a true feeling for the blues. Scheelen’s group, “Jazz Konfeet,” is popular all over Europe.

-- Singer Betsy Guy, a statuesque blonde from Cleveland, has been singing Dixieland and traditional jazz for more than six decades. For many years, she was the entertainment director for Cleveland’s Boykin Management, one of the leading hotel management firms in the country. Betsy has sung at concerts, in musical theater and with the popular band of Trevor Guy.

-- Trumpeter/vocalist Dick Cashman, a retired metallurgist from New England, recalls — quite authentically, by the way — the styles of famed trumpeters of the 1920s like Bix Beiderbecke, and his favorite, Wild Bill Davison. Self-taught and playing for more than 40 years, Cashman’s renditions of songs like Pinetop Perkins’ “Kidney Stew” are always charmers.

-- Gus Maywald, saxophonist and singer from Pennsylvania, never fails to entertain and excite. He’s been a pro since the age of 14 and has played with the likes of Louis Prima. Maywald’s “real” job, before retirement, was as a regional sales manager. “I was on the road all the time and spent most of my time in a car,” he says. No matter what the job was during the day, there was always time for playing at night.

-- Philadelphia jazz singer Joy Adams has been delighting audiences all over the world with her original interpretations of American popular song, performing alongside jazz legends such as Maynard Ferguson and Bucky Pizzarelli. Like Jebry, Adams led her own, fondly remembered jazz jam session in Philadelphia for more than eight years.

-- Marty Krebs may have been running a multimillion-dollar printing company in Milwaukee, but he somehow found the time to play jazz trumpet with the city’s top society orchestra, backing guests such as Lou Rawls and Glen Campbell. His “Beale Street Jazz Band” played for a remarkable 10 years at Milwaukee’s landmark jazz spot, called the Red Mill. Krebs’ style combines aspects of swing and traditional jazz, with touches of bop and modernism.

-- Vocalist Carole Engle loves music and loves to sing. With the exception of a day or two here and there, Engle has not missed a Jebry performance — and has not missed singing a couple of numbers with the band in years. Though she studied voice as a child and sang in various choirs in her teens, Engle did not pick up a microphone again until about four years ago.

-- Frank Michota, a fine drummer and vocalist, has been involved in music since childhood. A retired podiatrist from Toledo, Michota is a skilled and studied performer who has played in settings that range from big bands and symphonies to country groups and barbershop quartets. He’s active in several Naples bands, including the Jazzmasters Dixie group and the Gulf Coast Big Band.

-- Classically trained pianist Mel Rosen has been playing since 1946. In terms of jazz, Rosen’s work can be reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s, as they both combine elements of classical and improvisational music. He spent years as an IBM computer programmer, but may be best known to the public as a creator and editor of crossword puzzles, with several Random House crossword puzzle books to his credit.

Honorable mention: Al Reddington, Tony Pulera, Rosemarie Smedile (vocalists), Frank Reda (accordion), Dick Peterson (banjo), Bobby Gideons (piano), Dan Smedile (guitar), Bill Papineau (trumpet, and one of the founders of jazz in Naples), Bill Rignola and Patricia Schwent (tenor saxophone). Apologies to those I’ve forgotten.

POSTSCRIPT

The world of jazz is relatively small and at its best has always been characterized as a loving and supportive community.

A perfect example occurred several weeks ago. Mel Rosen and his wife, Peggy, had attended Jebry’s Sunday jam session at Norm’s. Trained ballroom dancers, Peggy and Mel were on the dance floor, when Mel collapsed with cardiac arrest.

Frank Michota, also at Norm’s that afternoon to sit in on drums and vocals, rushed onto the dance floor, gave Mel mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR. Michota’s quick thinking and medical skill brought Mel Rosen back to life.

After several weeks in the hospital, Rosen is now recuperating at home and practicing his beloved piano daily. His goal? To return to Jebry’s stage and continue jamming.

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Bruce Klauber is the biographer of jazz great Gene Krupa, producer/writer of the “Jazz Legends” DVD series from Warner Brothers and Hudson Music, and a professional drummer who also sits in regularly with Jebry. He can be contacted at DrumAlive@aol.com

© 2008 gonaples.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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